A manifesto for the future of meetings

As the global economic meltdown struck in September 2008, one of the first things that most companies did was to cancel all their conferences and staff development.  This was an instinctive response for many companies, probably necessary in order to cut back on costs and focus on surviving the downturn.  But as the economy picks up and conferences are once again being scheduled, there is a nagging doubt in the minds of many business leaders about the real return of investment from these meetings they are planning.

Many companies spend a large amount of money each year running conferences designed to grow their businesses – either internal staff events or conferences for their business partners, channel or sales teams.  ROI on a conference is notoriously hard to isolate, but there is no doubt that companies normally have very clear objectives for their conferences – normally to catalyse business growth or change behaviour in some way.

Teams of people, both internal and external, swarm around the planning and preparation for conferences.  Most of the effort is put into crafting a great experience for the delegates including the sourcing of interesting and entertaining venues, approving of the various menus for food, selecting themes and appropriate décor, and slotting in various speakers who have been designated to deliver specific messages.  As an added extra these teams will also attempt to source some external speakers to add a little bit of pizzazz, motivation, edutainment and expertise to the event.  All of this gets thrown in a pot, stirred round for a bit and out pops something that, truth be told, is remarkably similar to what you did last year and what your competitors are going to do next month.

This is a problem.  It can get a short term response and a good feeling from delegates.  But …
•    Does this type of event do anything more than a video conference might have achieved?
•    Or a well thought through incentive that would cost you a fraction of the price and energy?
•    Are conferences just an excuse for your team to have an expensive few days out of the office?
•    What is the return on investment?

We believe that at the heart of the problem we do not start in the right place when developing a conference.  The first and most important question of all is “what must this conference achieve?”  Of course, most people ask this question in a vague way – I am suggesting that we need specific, measurable, quantifiable answers to that question.  This is really a bigger question than simply asking about the conference itself.  This question attempts to place the conference inside the business strategy for the current financial and planning period.  In order to answer this question it is absolutely vital then to know the answer to a second question:  “Who is the owner of the conference?”

By “owner” I mean: which senior leader in the organisation needs to get the most output from the conference?  Sometimes this is an easy question to answer.  A conference for the sales team of an organisation would be owned by the sales director.  In that case, the answer to the first question would then most likely be “a significant increase in sales”.  If the conference is part of an awards programme designed as a fun adventure to thank and motivate your most hard working staff members, then the owner of the conference may very well be the CEO (not the HR Director) and the outcome of the conference could be staff retention, increased staff motivation.  It might even be more for the people who don’t go on the event than those who do, serving to incentivise increased effort in the remainder of the staff over the next year.

To be most effective, the answer to the first question (“what must this conference achieve”) needs to be phrased in business terms and linked to the strategy of the organisation.  No matter how successful an event is in itself, it cannot be deemed to be successful if it does not help the company to achieve its strategic goals.

Conference Content Architecture

Having established how the conference fits into the company’s strategy and who owns the purpose of the conference, it is essential now to focus on the content of the conference.  Too often, even if companies are reasonably clear on the conference objectives, they leave this next important phase until the end.  Too often conference organisers simply have a list of speakers – or a list of topics that need to be spoken on – and put these into slots in the conference agenda.  This will leave them with either too many slots allocated to speakers or with a few empty slots which they then have to somehow fill with either external or internal speakers.  Even if slightly more thought is put into it than this, most conference organising teams are almost exclusively focussed on the conference experience itself rather than being single minded about integrating the content of the conference into broader company objectives and activities.
Enter the role of conference content architect.  I propose a new role to be fulfilled by someone on the conference organising team, preferably someone whose sole role on the team is this.  The conference content architect has responsibility for crafting the content that needs to be delivered and received through a conference.  The image of an architect is apt.  This is not an engineer who has the responsibility to build the structure, but an architect who has the responsibility for envisioning the whole and for seeing how the individual pieces fit together in a grand design.  The architect’s role in the team should also preferably not be one linked to the logistics of the event, but should rather focus on the strategic vision of what is to be achieved.

Working together with the owner of the conference, the conference content architect’s first task is to work out what content is required in order to achieve the stated purpose of the conference.  The architect needs to step back from what has “always been done” and what is “traditional” for this particular event, company or industry.  The architect needs to ensure that every piece of information, every presentation, every speaker, every resource, every session format, has a purpose at the conference and at the events leading up to and after the conference itself.  The conference architect must then also consider the flow and the energy of the conference as he or she puts the conference timetable – the conference programme – together.

Another key role of the conference content architect will be to brief the speakers.  Where you use external experts and professional speakers, a proper briefing is required.  Too often these briefings include long rambling introductions to the business, as if you’re trying to get the external speaker to invest in your company or become a consultant to you.  The briefing should be concise and precisely to the point.  And the point is ROI.

The speaker should be very clear about your business’s strategy, about how the conference is helping to achieve that strategy, what the flow of the conference is and where they fit in, and most importantly, what you want their session to achieve.

For internal speakers, the conference content architect must work even harder.  Most internal speakers are boring beyond belief, inflicting death by PowerPoint.  A good architect will work with each speaker, possibly outsourcing the presentation development to a decent graphic designer and also ensuring the presenters are of a reasonable level.

The conference architect needs to have decision rights over issues related to what must be delivered, how it gets delivered, who delivers it, who facilitates the conference, who acts as Master of Ceremonies and the styles of the sessions and interactions themselves.  The conference architect should also consider what resources need to be made available and what can and should be done before and after the event.  Forward thinking conference architects will take advantage of new technologies that have emerged over the last few years – especially communication technologies that allow people to interact more effectively and allow groups of people to collaborate, engage and interact with each other in ways that have not been available to conference organisers in the past.  The conference architect therefore needs to have some technical ability as well as an understanding of the ways in which people work best together in conference-size groupings.

Given the set of skills required, it would not surprise me if this role was best fulfilled by a professional who was brought in from outside the team.  There is another reason why an external person might be preferable: that is the politics that may emerge as conference content is put together.  An external person has a better chance of being immune from some of the politics involved in deciding who get to speak and what they are able to say and what format their session should take.  The desired outcome and the format best suited to achieving this should trump all issues of ego, rank, position, status and personality.  It’s a tough task and that’s why it is often not done. The conference content architect role will not be for sissies.

Let the Professionals Loose

Only after the content of the conference has been agreed upon should the conference organising team be given a brief to go and select a venue, choose a theme and select the activities for the event.  Each of these must be shown to enhance the content objectives of the conference – in order to connect back to the business objectives set out right at the start of the process.  I am not suggesting that the “owner” of the conference should be involved at this point – in fact, if the corporate sponsor of a conference is too involved at this point it is often counter-productive and very irritating for the professional conference organisers.  Again, this is a role of the “architect” – to mediate between the “client” and the “engineers” and ensure that the conference organisers are allowed to get on and do their jobs.

I would suggest that even conferences that are primarily put together for fun and team building should be planned this way, starting with the conference content architect working together with the owner of the conference to craft the content take away from the event.  Even if this is a small portion of the actual time allocated to an event that may include longer periods of relaxation, entertaining activities and team building, it is the content of the conference and the emphasis on aligning the conference structure with the strategic objectives for the organisation that will ensure a significant (and measurable) ROI for the event.  Anything else might result in delegates having a wonderful time but the company not getting the benefit they are looking for from the event itself.  Given the amount of money normally spent on events that entertain, this would be a tragic waste of resources.

Meetings must change

As we emerge from the global economic downturn, many aspects of our businesses will be found to have undergone significant change.  The way we do conferences will be one of the most significant shifts of all.  It might be very easy to slip back into the old habits of conferencing: big glitzy events, important for their own sake, but with limited measurable ROI.  I am not sure that there are many companies that can afford this luxury in the years ahead.  Adding this new role of Conference Content Architect, and answering the important questions about the conferences’ purpose, ownership and structure will help companies to ensure that they get the best return on their conferencing investment.  We cannot afford to simply try to do business as usual – or as it used to be.  The world has changed and our meetings must change too.

Dr Graeme Codrington is an author, speaker and expert on the new world of work and has played the role of Conference Content Architect for many of his clients over a number of years.  He helps his clients understand the trends that are shaping the future world of work and can be contacted at [email protected]

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